Should your kids be on Facebook?
Jamie Oliver says no – but is it better to teach kids how to be safe online and let them at it?
Published 05/11/2013 | 01:00
It's the most modern of parenting dilemmas: how do your keep your children safe online? Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has taken a strict approach, banning his children from having mobile phones or joining social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to protect them from bullies.
"I found out that my two eldest girls [Poppy (11) and Daisy (10)] had set up Instagram accounts in secret, which I was not happy about and soon put a stop to it. Poppy's the only girl in her class still not allowed a mobile. It may sound harsh, but I do worry about the bullying that can go on with these sites," he says.
Another father of three is taking a different approach. British Prime Minister David Cameron, mirroring the feelings of many concerned parents, intends to monitor his children's Facebook pages once they are old enough to open accounts.
He has also suggested that parents warn their children against using the controversial ask.fm website, after 14-year-old Hannah Smith hanged herself after months of abuse online. Irish teenagers Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher, who took their own lives last year, were also victims of cyberbullying and online trolling via Ask.fm.
On the face of it, it seems an obvious approach for worried parents to take. But this most complicated of issues requires more than a simplistic response.
Vicky Beeching is an academic researcher and expert in internet ethics (vickybeeching.com), and in a blog post, she argues that instead of blaming or banning the social networks that our children frequent, parents need to engage with them more comprehensively.
That's a sentiment shared by Lorna Sixsmith, who teaches online social-media training (weteachsocial.com) and has two children, Kate (9) and Will (11), with her husband Brian. Lorna, unlike Cameron, won't insist that her children befriend her or permit her to see their Facebook pages.
"I will insist that they wait until they're 13 to create a Facebook account as I think it's important to play by the rules from the outset when it comes to your online life, but I won't be monitoring their activity," she explains.
"What I will insist on is ensuring that they understand how Facebook works, and how to control their privacy settings and manage their account responsibly, determining whether other people can tag them in photographs and such."
Lorna believes there's no need to keep tabs on your child's online life, provided you've armed them with what they need to know to manage their own online wellbeing.
Much as we might teach a child how to walk to school safely, once they're of an age to do so alone, but wouldn't shadow their daily journey in a bid to guarantee that they don't come to any harm, Lorna's point is that parents need to learn how to let go, even online.
"It's more effective to familiarise yourself with the social networks that your kids use, and then talk them through the risks and the related precautions they should take, such as never revealing their contact details on their profile," she explains.
"Teaching children how to handle their own Facebook account with maturity, taking into account things like how future employers may one day view their digital footprint, is far more beneficial than just trying to keep an eye on what your child does online."
Siobhán O'Neill White runs parenting website mumstown.ie with her husband, David, and together they have a son, Mitchell (10), and three daughters, Robyn (8), April (6) and Summer (2).
Siobhán believes it's risky to assume that a 13-year-old, no matter how well informed, is mature enough to recognise risk online, never mind respond to it appropriately.
"I learned a lesson with my younger sister who's just coming out of her teens," she explains.
"She went online while staying with us one weekend and I noticed that she had innocently posted about an upcoming football match with her under-16s team. A 'boy' who claimed to live nearby then befriended her. He started asking questions about what time she'd be there, and said he wanted to watch them play.
"I probed a little, and it turned out that neither she nor her friends knew him at all. His language seemed more adult than a 15-year-old's, and he'd listed 'Drinking Jack Daniels' as one of his interests, so I warned her that he could be someone dangerous.
"It was worrying but I'm just glad I was monitoring her online because our parents, who aren't internet-savvy, might have missed it."
Unfortunately, not all online trouble is so easy to terminate. "There's a belief that cyberbullying and trolling are easy for parents to identify," Lorna agrees.
"But even the most stealth monitoring of your child's virtual world may not enable you to catch cyberbullies red-handed or spot trouble of a sexual or predatory nature, particularly once teen vernacular dominates your son or daughter's online vocabulary.
"And, as with offline bullying, those who bully online tend to do so in as covert a way as possible to avoid getting caught."
Even if you do identify cyberbullying or other online trouble, identifying the culprits and putting a stop to it is far from easy. Nevertheless, some parents see keeping a watchful eye on their children online as an important parental responsibility rather than an invasion of privacy.
Siobhán is sympathetic to David Cameron's view that keeping tabs on kids online is part of being a responsible parent.
"There are many depraved people abusing the internet, some of whom may want to harm children and teenagers, or befriend them for dangerous reasons," Siobhán says.
"Children and teenagers are vulnerable, and it's our job as parents to protect them. Bullying and internet predators need to be watched out for by parents who are more aware of such risks and how to spot them."
Siobhán agrees that privacy is important, but thinks we prioritise it over a child's online wellbeing at our peril.
"I'd like to be able to respect my children's right to privacy online but I've experienced the nasty comments and bullying that can happen myself," she says.
"As an adult it was incredibly upsetting and unnerving to see the horrid things people wrote about me following an article I wrote. Facebook had to close the page down and the gardaí had to be informed," she explains.
"When I think of all the poor teens who have taken their lives as a result of cyberbullying I have no hesitation about keeping tabs on my children's habits online to watch out for signs of anything bad or potentially upsetting.
"I'll expect to know their passwords when they're old enough for Facebook because the internet is a dangerous place and a child or teen may not be savvy enough to navigate that without parental supervision."
Of course, not all children are potential victims of online abuse; some are also perpetrators. Siobhán and Lorna agree that actively engaging with their children's online lives, whether that be through hands-off preventative measures or ongoing surveillance, is one way to limit that.
"Not only would I want to know if someone was bullying my child but I'd want to know if my child was being cruel to someone else," explains Siobhán.
"I'd like to think my children would never do anything like that, but I am realistic in knowing that it's easy for children, even nice ones, to piggyback on what another child says and contribute to bullying that way."
Despite their differing approaches, Lorna and Siobhán see the endgame of equipping their children to cope with online life as one facet of modern parenting.
"Social media is ultimately very good for kids, and it's undoubtedly going to be a fundamental feature of the business landscape in the future, so it's vital that we help them get to grips with it, rather than shying away from it at the first challenging hurdle, as Cameron seems to be advocating," says Lorna.
That echoes the view expressed by Vicky Beeching in her blog. "Parents, I'd urge you to allow your kids to stay on these sites, as they are an important way of life for them," she writes.
"What happens in those spaces really matters to our teens. And that could not be clearer than in the case of Hannah Smith. Disengaging is not the advice Cameron should be giving now. Boycotting and/or blaming the technology and its owners gets us nowhere long-term."
Ultimately, there is no failsafe approach to protecting kids online, which is why the subject is so emotive.
While the prevailing wisdom appears to be that we should equip kids with the skills to manage their own online lives rather than trying to run them for them, there's also a school of thought that says that while parents are paying the bills for the technology that enables kids to be online, they must assume responsibility for what happens in cyberspace.
And, as recent events have shown, the 'trust them to get on with it' approach, though well intentioned, can literally end in horror.